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Tony Iommi's secrets of songwriting for Black Sabbath's five best albums

Black Sabbath shot life into the world when they made their bold arrival at the beginning of the seventies. They did so with a canon of songs that cracked through the public consciousness and announced the advent of heavy metal — all of which was architected by Tony Iommi.

Black Sabbath were pioneers in every sense of the word. The Brummies were unlike anything that came before them, and they rapidly became heroes for a generation of kids who would do their best to replicate their anarchic sound. What made Sabbath so sumptuous was that the band was never merely the Ozzy Osbourne show; all four group members brought their individual ingredients to the party, creating unmatched headbanging anthems.

The band’s primary songwriter was guitar wizard Tony Iommi, a creative who was firmly the brains behind the majority of Black Sabbath’s music. While Osbourne would write vocal melodies and bassist Geezer Butler would chip in with lyrics, the band hung on Iommi’s distinct sound.

Speaking to Guitar World in 1992, Ward dissected the best Black Sabbath records, offering a first-class insight into Black Sabbath and how they created their iconic records. 

Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut set the world alight and kickstarted metal as we know it today. However, making the album wasn’t plain sailing, with the band facing repeated financial difficulties. Iommi admitted “money was really scarce in those days,” which meant that they didn’t have time to waste. Somehow, the album was completed by Sabbath in just eight hours at Regent Sound in London, which gave the album a raw sound that translated perfectly to vinyl.

“Most of my solos on that record were done the same way I do them now – very off-the-cuff,” Iommi continued. “I performed the extended solo on Warning in only two takes. The first one I played was much better than the second one, but our so-called producer, who had never produced an album in his life, decided to put the second one on the record without consulting us.”

The group had garnered a wealth of attention thanks to their debut, and they followed it up with Paranoid, a project which they spent a whole five days recording rather than just the eight hours. This album caught the attention of people who missed their debut, and Black Sabbath showed that they weren’t messing around and here to wreak havoc with tracks like ‘War Pigs’ and the titular effort in their canon.

The album was a more polished final effort than their debut, which Iommi says is down to having more time to get the songs ready to be recorded. “I think the reason this record turned out so well was that we had a long time to work out all the material,” the guitarist noted. “We were playing seven 45-minute sets each day in a dusty old club in Switzerland, in front of anywhere from three to two dozen people.”

Iommi added: “Rehearsing like that for six weeks really tightened us up. It also enabled us to experiment more because we really only had enough songs for one set each day – certainly not seven. It gave us a chance to make stuff up and rearrange existing songs.”

The progression of Sabbath came to the fore on their next record, Master Of Reality, which is the sound of the metal heroes at the peak of their powers. Everything on the record is a masterclass in metal, and it took the first two albums for Black Sabbath to grow into an outfit that was capable of creating an album like Master Of Reality. Album closers don’t get much stronger than ‘Into The Void’, which is a befitting way to end a rock-solid record. “We started getting more experimental and began taking too much time to record,” Iommi recalled. However, while every Black Sabbath fan on the planet would struggle to come up with a single complaint about the album, the ever perfectionist Iommi can only think about what he’d have done better. “Ultimately, I think it really confused us,” he added. “Sometimes I think I’d really like to go back to the way we recorded the first two albums. I’ve always preferred just going into the studio and playing, without spending a lot of time rehearsing or getting sounds.”

“We tried recording ‘Into the Void’ in a couple of different studios because Bill [Ward] just couldn’t get it right. Whenever that happened, he would start believing that he wasn’t capable of playing the song,” Iommi revealed.

Another pivotal album in the history of Black Sabbath is 1972’s Vol. 4, which they tried to call Snowblind, an ode to the colour of their favourite powder. Not only were they attempting to produce their own record for the first time, but they had also developed an expensive cocaine habit between them that would make Hunter S. Thompson blush. Somehow, amid all the madness going on at the time, Sabbath produced a masterpiece against all the odds.

“LA was a real distraction for us, and that album ended up sounding a bit strange,” Iommi admits. “The people who were involved with the record really didn’t have a clue. They were all learning with us, and we didn’t know what we were doing either.”

Iommi continued: “The experimental stage we began with Master of Reality continued with Vol. 4, and we were trying to widen our sound and break out of the bag everyone had put us into.”

1980’s Heaven and Hell was a strange time for Sabbath following the departure of Ozzy Osbourne. While most bands would struggle having lost their leader, Ronnie James Dio rose to the occasion and suitably filled Osbourne’s larger than life shoes.

The record ended up being the most robust release by Sabbath in years and showed that change was necessary, with the group proving once again why they are the kings of metal. “After going through 11 months of frustration with Ozzy, Ronnie James Dio was a great addition to the band. He had a new way of looking at things, and it gave us a new approach,” Iommi revealed.

The guitarist added: “Ronnie was very excited about joining the band, but I think it was difficult for him to fill Ozzy’s shoes. We tried to make it as easy on Ronnie as we could because, even though we went out on a limb firing Ozzy, we believed in what we were doing – and it worked.”

Black Sabbath’s five best albums:

  • Black Sabbath
  • Paranoid
  • Master Of Reality
  • Vol. 4
  • Heaven and Hell